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Making and Remaking

I like to make things. I don’t know why, exactly – my parents were not “handy” in the sense that they went looking for the type of projects that I have long been drawn to. They never taught me how to use tools. I guess I had a granduncle that was an amateur architect (I have some of his tools, which I cherish), and one of my grandfathers was an electrical engineer, but I didn’t really know them and can’t ascribe my deep interest in making to anything more than an errant gene. I just can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in how things were made.

I think a lot of us are like this.

My education in making began with un-making. I loved to take things apart, and I loved the pieces of things – the mysterious, often beautiful parts that made little sense by themselves but which – before I separated them – made some part of the world sensible and complete, and productive. It took a long time for me to be able to put things back together and – later – to be able to fix things that were broken – a skill that continues to provide much pleasure. I think a many of us are like this, too, though as architects we frequently fix things at larger scales.

My practice has engaged existing buildings and urban fabric, and I have been called upon to restore, redevelop, repair, and add onto. The knowledge I have gathered regarding how old buildings were put together helps me to think about how to take them apart, to then put them together again to make part of the world sensible, complete and productive. Both traditional and modern methods of construction can be used- if the desire is there – to make buildings and infrastructure that can be engaged, re-engaged and engaged again many times in the future without pain, fuss or complication. Worn-out roofing can be removed, clogged plumbing can be replaced, old wiring can be updated easily and cost-effectively, windows can be updated and siding replaced if buildings are designed to allow for it. The approach is decidedly eco-friendly as it ensures that buildings that we put a great deal of energy into can last without bankrupting future generations. It isn’t heroic, but it IS a sensible way to think about building, and it reminds us that buildings aren’t objects on a shelf – they sit, weathering, in a changing landscape serving changing needs and should be designed to be easily and actively maintained.

Old Vermont Barns

I was reminded of this during the course of last summer, when I needed to fix my barn in Vermont, a building that has been falling down since I was a boy living next door. My neighbors used their barn for hay and equipment storage. I needed it for a wedding dinner. The foundations are dry stones laid one top of one-another. The stones move up and down as the ground they sit on freezes and thaws each winter, and they are pushed sideways when the inside of the barn freezes more deeply and more quickly than the outside (the inside is bare, while the snow provides some insulation). The walls gradually but inexorably move outward. The roof begins to bend lower. The beams begin to crack, and break. Seams in the siding open up, allowing water to penetrate and rot the beams. Mice dig into the rotten wood and make nests. The lower parts of the walls push, finally, out beyond the eaves, inviting water directly inward, and supporting the growth of moss and lichen. An ecosystem is born that, while being photogenic and romantic, also represents a rapidly approaching structural collapse. As a building owner it was a depressing thing to watch happen, but I knew that this barn was meant to be repaired and rebuilt.

Temporary beams supporting posts above collapsed stone foundation

I began by putting beams on either side of each column, and simply lifting them with an old car jack, a little at a time. That took the weight off the lowest beam – the sill -and also off the stone wall. A local fellow who likes to dance with large stones used steel bars and levers to waddle the largest stones back to where they were needed for a good base, and then picked through a pile to find and fit together dry stones to create the new support for the repaired and straightened post-and-beam wall.

Rebuilt stone foundation supporting repaired & straightened post-and-beam wall

It took a good week. It will likely need to be attended to again in the future, but not by me. The part of my brain that has been worried about that particular problem for over twenty years is now free to work on other problems, but it was a profound and moving thing to realize that while I need that barn, it needed me too.

I think a lot of buildings are probably like that.

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